Chelyabinsk: A 'Gift' for World War II Veterans
One new trend that's sprung up since 1995 is the opening of special apartment buildings for World War II veterans. Sixty years after the war ended, the number of those veterans is dwindling rapidly, but several cities -- including Khabarovsk and Chelyabinsk -- have recently poured big money into spiffy new "Houses of Veterans."
Following up on our theme of how pensioners are living, we decided to check out Chelyabinsk's House of Veterans, which opened just two weeks ago. David and I trekked out to the city's northwest region, a nondescript area of block-like apartments, and walked through the grounds of the giant, concrete-gray Emergency Hospital to reach the veterans' home in the back.
Decorated with cheery yellow and orange paint, with picnic tables, benches and even a small "summer stage" for concerts in front, it looked like a pretty inviting place. And when Director Irina Mananova took us on a whirlwind tour of the building's first floor, I was surprised at how elaborate the services were.
The home offers free on-site medical and psychological services, as well as aromatherapy and herbal therapy. There's a library with chessboards, a "winter garden" sitting room, a laundry room, and a planning room, where "the more active babushki can come plan parties," Mananova said. The 100-seat activities hall converts into a dance floor -- and it even boasts a karaoke machine. "Active babushki," indeed.
Social workers stand at the ready to serve the residents in any conceivable way. As Mananova put it, "They'll do the grocery shopping; the resident can just fill out a form for what he needs. They'll clean the windows, they'll take the garbage out." Forty-four employees, from doctors to social workers to the accountant, staff a building that houses 165 residents. And all the services are free.
It's an impressive operation, paid for entirely by the city and regional government. But it did make me wonder -- why now? Why, when so many years had passed, were all these Russian cities just now building these Houses of Veterans?
"This is like a gift for the 60-year anniversary of the end of the war," said Mananova, adding that the government does "a lot more for veterans of the war now -- all the more so because they're at the age now where every year, there are fewer of them."
World War II veterans have always enjoyed special status here, partly because the war looms so large in Russian consciousness. Unlike the U.S., where the attack on Pearl Harbor was the only incursion onto its soil, Russia suffered years of bloody fighting on its land. In fact, the Russian name for the war against the Germans is "The Great Patriotic War."
Estimates of how many Russians died as a result of the war vary, but 20 million is a widely accepted figure. By comparison, around 400,000 Americans are estimated to have died in the war. It would be wrong to minimize America's role in the victory in Europe. Still it's always been surprising to me how little non-Russians seem to know about the Soviet Union's enormous role in that war -- and its even more enormous sacrifice.
Okay, that's it for my public service announcement. Tomorrow: What I saw in Chelyabinsk that made me feel like I was home already.
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